Inside the Industry LaFrae Sci, Executive Director of Willie Mae Rock Camp: Empowerment Through Music and Social Justice


As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 14 – New York-inspired (Dec. 2020)

Don’t be misled by the name thinking it’s your typical one-week music camp for girls where they learn instruments and put together a rock band. Willie Mae Rock Camp offers so much more. Founded by former Executive Director Karla Schickale in 2004 as The Working Group, the non-profit organization has grown over the past sixteen years into a program to empower “girls and gender expansive youth to find their voice and express themselves loudly and freely” through music and social justice. While music is part of the program, the organization also offers workshops on social justice, Afrofuturism, podcasting, digital music production, songwriting, and more.

Current Executive Director LaFrae Sci took the time from her busy schedule to fill us in on its history, mission and programs, the inspiration behind the name, and their new building.

The non-profit was founded in 2004 as The Working Group. Can you fill us in on the backstory on the beginnings of the non-profit, its mission, and how it grew into the organization now known as Willie Mae Rock Camp?
I remember reading an article about the first rock camp in Portland, so when I saw the sign advertising a planning meeting to discuss creating in NYC what became Willie Mae, I answered the call and worked and volunteered as a drum teacher and band coach. I love that we are named after Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton—a great woman of the blues who changed the world with her voice and songwriting. I believe the decision to seek 501c3 status was made so that we could be eligible for support from grantmakers. We met regularly and discussed so many details. I recall that it was very important to us to center the creative freedom of the student without forcing technical instruction. We also chose a holistic approach that was more about personal expression and community building. We gave the campers space to figure things out over a one-week camp session, and it was amazing to see girls take a couple of chords and a drum groove and find a way to collaborate. Over time we saw how this approach actually fostered agency and critical thinking.

How has the creative team developed over time?
Willie Mae grew in part because of its volunteer community and the shared vision held by the founding Executive Director, Karla Schickale. Over the last 16 years, there have been a few shifts and changes in staff composition as the organization has grown. Willie Mae continues to serve the community year-round through camp and in-school partnerships. As the new Executive Director of Willie Mae, I have introduced a year-round schedule of programming informed by the philosophy of Afrofuturism that combines STEAM and social justice called Willie Mae Future Sounds!

Share with us some of the work and special projects the camp has been involved with.
Due to the pandemic, we pivoted to an online format and had summer camp last July. Willie Mae Future Sounds Summer Camp 2020’s focus was to “reboot the Zoom,” encourage interdisciplinary expression adhering to the Mission of Willie Mae, and building community while encouraging critical thinking and collaboration. The campers met for two weeks on the Zoom platform, where they attended workshops on Social Justice, harnessing social media as a medium for change, Afrofuturism, film making, radical podcasting, gender identity, songwriting, and how to use a collaborative digital audio workstation. In addition to choosing a focus as a fam and collectively creating their content, special guest artists performed each day—allowing for Q&A and leaving inspirational pearls.

Are the programs year-round?
Yes! We are committed to providing online COVID response programming. Our Digital Mentorship Winter Session starts in January. Because we are online, we encourage people to sign up, even if they are not in New York.

At what age can campers join?
Our in-person rock camp programs are open to participants eight to eighteen. Our online programming is focused on ages ten to seventeen.

How has COVID affected the teaching environment?
We are not in person at all due to the pandemic. While it’s not possible to rock out together, we can still create together, using music technology and an interdisciplinary approach online. We had students incorporate animation, poetry, podcasting, and filmmaking with music technology and collaborative songwriting. The students are using technology to co-create amazing projects.

I see that the organization was a recipient of the 2019 Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact. Where else do you get your funding?
The Mayor’s grant allowed us to create programming for the residents at a center for family homelessness in Brooklyn. I had the privilege of teaching for that program. As an organization, we get our funding from a combination of individual donors and state and local grants.

In what ways does the camp empower young attendees to instil the value of inclusivity and forge a path for social justice?
Well, this is all in our mission statement. We are not a music camp. We are empowerment through music and social justice camp. We encourage girls and gender expansive youth to find their voice and express themselves loudly and freely. We encourage them to source their own stories and be aware of social justice issues happening in their communities and the world around them.

Have graduates of the program gone on to pursue a career in music?
We do have a few former campers at Berklee College of Music and NYU right now—but again, we aren’t in the business of making musicians; we foster a space that encourages creative expression, self-awareness, and leadership.

What future goals and plans are in the works for Willie Mae Rock Camp?
WE HAVE A HOME! Recently, we moved into a 1500 square foot teaching studio in Brooklyn that had a soundproofed studio. The idea is the participants can learn about music technology and rock it out on instruments year-round. We look forward to the day when it is safe to continue programming in person.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to a camper dreaming of becoming a professional musician?
Believe in your dream. Your voice matters. Find a crew. Create as much as possible. Don’t quit! Also, remember that you don’t need fancy gear. If you have a cellphone, you can use apps to record and make a music video.

Photos provided by the organization